Doers of the Word

Lectors for Pentecost Sunday probably do a little more practice than usual so that they won’t trip over the names of the cities and provinces listed by Luke in Acts 2. Those names belong to the Jewish diaspora—from Rome in the West to Arabia in the East, with points both north (Pontus) and south (Libya). Traditional commentators like to contrast that geographical list with the Genesis account of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), since in Acts there is universal intelligibility while in Genesis there is, well, babble. Luke’s larger point is that everyone in the Jewish world was capable of hearing this new Good News even if its accent pointed to Galilee.

This passage in Acts reminds us that the Christian message is always subject to the limits of human language. When I was a high school student many decades ago, the nuns at my school brought in a Jesuit missionary who worked in the Arctic. Among his other projects, he translated some of the New Testament into the native language of the Inuit Peoples. At the time I was far more taken with his account of traveling to mission stations on a dogsled. It was only much later that it struck me how difficult his translation work must have been. How does one explain the Eucharistic bread and wine in a culture that knows nothing of wheat or grapes? What does a Good Shepherd look like in a world of hunter-gatherers? And what words are available for verdant pastures in a language that...

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About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.